Debra Allcock Tyler: We need people inspired by a cause - not those attracted by a large salary

A high salary is not a measure of your worth to the voluntary sector, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I was recently tweeted a link to a TED website talk by America's not-for-profit darling Dan Pallotta. It has gone down a storm, particularly in the US - and I can see why. He's charismatic, clever, self-effacing, honest, a committed voluntary sector activist and, let's face it, very attractive. What's not to love?

However, to be honest, I found myself largely disagreeing with him, while still having a great deal of sympathy for his points. He's clearly very pissed off about having to lay off 350 of his charity staff because his sponsor labelled their salaries as 'overheads'. I don't blame him - I'd be pissed off too. His sponsor was clearly an idiot.

Pallotta asserts that our sector needs to be able to pay high salaries in order to attract the best people and that there's something inherently morally skewed in a society that thinks that's wrong.

To quote: "We have a visceral reaction to the idea that anyone would make very much money helping other people. Interesting that we don't have a visceral reaction to the notion that people would make a lot of money NOT helping other people ...

"You want to make $50m selling violent video games to kids, go for it ... you want to make $0.5m trying to cure kids of malaria and you're considered a parasite yourself."

He's got a point. It is a bit weird, isn't it? People complain about the ridiculous salaries footballers earn, yet buy tickets to matches, thereby funding those very same salaries. And in the next breath those same people say they won't donate to charities that pay large salaries to charity staff.

Pallotta argues that if we want the best people to solve huge social problems we need to pay large salaries to attract them. And that's where we part company. I think he's wrong. Big salaries don't attract the best people; they attract people who are attracted by big salaries.

Here's the thing: in the voluntary sector, how much you are paid is rarely to do with your qualities and abilities; it's more usually a measure of how much the organisation can afford to pay you. And most do try to pay reasonable salaries. Fortunately, for most of the 'best' people, that's OK.

And the biggest social change-makers in the world - such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, to name just two - did not do it because they wanted to make money. We need people who want to work for a cause - not people who want to earn shedloads of dosh. Because if you're only there for the money, when the money's not there, neither are you. That's too risky a deal for most social problems.

I was asked by a recruitment consultant recently if I believed I was being paid what I was worth. My answer was: "Of course not. You couldn't ever afford to pay me what I'm worth."

I don't believe you can ever pay any human being what they're worth. Our worth should not be measured by the money we earn, but by the work that we do.

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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